The arrival of the annual Vanity Fair magazine Hollywood edition and the constant drumbeat of Academy Awards season always takes me back to that galaxy so far far away from where I live now–Los Angeles and my so-called Hollywood years.
This year Vanity Fair features a story about the days in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when, as the article reports, “the spec script was king.” This was a time when a writer could sit down at his word processor, hammer out an original screenplay on speculation — the “spec” script–turn it over to his agent who would then auction it off to the major studios anxious to bid hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars in order to acquire it.
I happened to be Los Angeles during that time, working on a book and living in an apartment on North Palm Drive in Beverly Hills, inevitably sucked into the maddening, frustrating whirlwind of screenplay writing that appeared to involve every single resident of the city.
The Vanity Fair piece makes it sound like everyone with a word processor was raking in a fortune writing screenplays, but, as is usually the case, those rewards were reserved for the very few at the very top of the pyramid. Even in those days, L.A. was reminiscent of Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust. The locusts existed at the bottom of the pyramid, scrambling for the crumbs dropped from above.
I was one of the locusts, albeit a fairly comfortable one, lodged in my Beverly Hills apartment, drifting around Los Angeles, forever intrigued by its curious rhythms and strange rituals, always amazed that a kid from small town Ontario was actually driving along Sunset Boulevard.
I wrote a lot of scripts during my time in L.A., but no one ever paid me hundreds of thousands for one of them, let alone millions. If anything, everyone seemed to go out of their way to avoid at all costs paying one single cent for any screenplay of mine.
In fact, getting anyone’s attention at all was an often exasperating and head-scratching experience. Nobody seemed the least bit interested in what you wrote, let alone willing to pay for it. And if, on rare occasions, there was interest, it was fleeting and would often take the most bizarre turns, leaving you more confused than ever.
One day my agent telephoned, uncharacteristically excited. He had just received a call from the people at Lightstorm, James Cameron’s production company. Cameron, of course, was the guy who had created The Terminator. He was BIG. This was BIG. Cameron’s people had read a script of mine. They wanted to meet me.
I drove out to Santa Monica where Lightstorm had its offices. When I got there, I was greeted eagerly by a young assistant and whisked into a conference room full of more young people. There was no sign of James Cameron.
Immediately, the Lightstorm boys and girls broke into smiles and began to express unending enthusiasm for my screenplay. They read so much crap. This was great; the best thing they had read for a long time.
I, of course, lapped all this up. Yeah, I began to think, the screenplay was great. I had finally arrived in Hollywood.These bright young things truly understood my genius.
This all went on for quite some time. I relaxed into the general conversation. These were my new pals–so passionate! So intelligent! They wanted to know about my background. They wanted to know about other projects I was working on. After a while I began to realize the conversation, as congenial as it was, wasn’t going anywhere. There didn’t seem to be any point to this, other than a group of people with nothing much else to do, sitting around, shooting the breeze.
Finally, I summoned my courage and asked if there was any interest in perhaps producing my adored script at Lightstorm. Immediately, the smiles disappeared. The room went silent. They looked at me as if I had landed from another planet.
Eventually, the assistant who had greeted me at the door, shook his head and forced a smile. “Jim only does his own projects,” he pronounced. Jim would not be interested in doing someone else’s work, the assistant went on. They just liked my script and wanted to meet me.
The meeting was over.
I reeled out into the bright Santa Monica sunlight, stunned and amazed that anyone would want to waste the morning talking to a writer about a script they were never in a million years going to make.
Welcome to Hollywood, I thought, as I dejectedly drove home. Well, lesson learned. I wouldn’t fall for that again.
A couple of years later, an L.A.-based production company, Finnegan-Pinchuk, became interested in another script I had written, hoping to do it as a television movie. Just when it seemed nothing was ever going to happen to the script, I received a call from one of the company’s partners, a likable veteran of the movie and TV wars named Shel Pinchuk.
Shel never got excited about much of anything, but this time I detected a note of enthusiasm in his voice. ICM, the second largest talent agency in Hollywood, had read the script, and they wanted to meet with us.
ICM was then housed in an impressive jade and glass building on Wilshire Boulevard. What struck me about the place as an assistant led us through its interior was the number of scripts everywhere. They were arranged on shelves, piled, literally, to the ceiling–and these were just the scripts that had made it into the hallowed confines of a big Hollywood agency. I began to have trouble swallowing.
We were ushered into a large conference room. If there was one agent seated at the table, there must have been ten, all of them young, beautifully dressed, and hugely–here’s that word again–enthusiastic. They had all read my script–one of the best they had read in a long time. Fantastic! Extraordinary! They were anxious to package it, an industry euphemism for putting a star, a script, and a director together using agency talent and then taking it out to the studios.
The names of ICM stars were bandied about, including, as I remember, Michael Caine. Then one of the agents snapped his fingers, his face lighting up. “You know who would be perfect for this? Brando!” Immediately a loud chorus of approval went up.
I looked around the room in astonishment, and then said something stupid like, “You mean Marlon Brando?” Everyone nodded. ICM had just signed him. He was looking for projects. This would be perfect for him. “But it’s television,” I managed to say. That was dismissed with a hand wave. Marlon would love it.
Eventually, amid much back-slapping and handshakes, we floated out of the conference room. When we got on the elevator, there stood actor Robert Blake, who had starred in TV’s Baretta (this was long before he was convicted of killing his wife).The elevator was made of glass and as it dropped down toward the lobby,we all stared out onto a courtyard surrounded by glass-fronted ICM offices. Blake shook his head. “Just think,” he said. “This whole f–ing place is full of agents.”
When we reached the street, night was falling. I was in a state of euphoria. Even Shel appeared pleased. This was it. I was on my way in Hollywood. I truly was a genius. It was a matter of time before Brando and I became best pals.
We never heard from ICM again.
Shel Pinchuk tried repeatedly to get someone on the phone. But no one ever returned his calls.